A Hit List of Tucson’s Finest Food and Drink

Where to eat? In Tucson, it’s a loaded question.

Longtime attendees of JCK Tucson and the other gem shows on the Arizona city’s calendar in February are probably familiar with old standbys such as El Minuto, the Mexican café across the street from the convention enter that serves as a de facto meeting room for showgoers; El Charro Café, which opened in 1922 and claims to be the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation; and Hotel Congress, a historic drinking establishment the walls of which really can talk.

But here’s a fact about Tucson many people don’t know: In 2016, the city became the only place in the United States designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In short: Tucson is full of good eats!

From 2019 newcomers such as the seafood-focused Charro del Rey and the Mediterranean-inspired Charro Vida—the latest restaurants to join the Flores Concepts group run by the Flores family behind El Charro—to a raft of funky, cool places to grab a much-needed post-show cocktail, the city is rich with fantastic dining and drinking options.

Hotel Congress lobby in Tucson
Hotel Congress lobby in Tucson (photo courtesy of Visit Tucson)

Below is a brief guide to our favorite spots for all hours of the day, all within a few miles of downtown.

For Sustainably Sourced Coffee Junkies

Located less than a 10-minute walk from the convention center (and just two minutes by car) in the MSA Annex (an expansion of Tucson’s foodie mecca, the Mercado San Agustín), Decibel Coffee Works was founded by a couple of musicians and audio engineers with a side passion for sustainably sourced coffee roasted locally in small batches. Is there a better way to start a day of gem buying?

Decibel Coffee Works in Tucson
Decibel Coffee Works in Tucson (image via: @decibelcoffeeworks)

Lunch That’s Flavorful, Affordable, and Lovely

The writers at Tucson Foodie are gaga for The Little One, a cash-only Stone Avenue café that serves breakfast and lunch in a cozy setting just an eight-minute walk from the AGTA GemFair. “My favorite lunch, perhaps in Tucson, is a side order of their cochinito en crema de chipotle,” writes Jenn Teufel. “I just get that little bowl of warmth—the tender pork simmered in a cream sauce with just a hint of peppery heat—and I ignore the delicious chips et al. and mack that perfect yumminess down. I always return to work happy.” #Goals

Dinner Among the Trains of Tucson Past

The JCK editorial team is a big fan of Maynards Market & Kitchen for reasons that go well beyond its menu of classic fare prepared with local ingredients used in inventive combinations. (Two no-brainers are the scallops with sweet potato and quince butter and the Parisian gnocchi, simmered in a sauce of lemon, ricotta, and pistachio). Celebrating its 11th anniversary in 2020, the restaurant is housed in Tucson’s historic train depot, where the sound of trains whistling by adds to the “dark and handsome” atmosphere.

Tucson historic train depot
Tucson’s historic train depot (photo by Fred Hood, courtesy of Visit Tucson)

An Unlikely Wine Bar

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Napa Valley when you enjoy a glass of wine inside the Sand Reckoner, a chic downtown tasting room for Arizona wines made by local winemakers Rob and Sarah Hammelman. Sourced mostly from a high desert vineyard in Cochise County, the grapes span varieties—malvasia bianca, nebbiolo, sangiovese, sagrantino, syrah, petit verdot, and zinfandel—yet produce uniformly delicious vintages.

Cocktails in a Kooky Setting

The Owls Club website is circumspect about its setting: “Nestled inside a 1920s structure decorated with beautiful stained glass and chandeliers, the Owls Club provides a warmth and elegance to the neighborhood bar experience.” All true, but what the owners fail to specify is that the 1920s structure in question was once a funeral home, complete with tables made from the original pews. Order the Templeton, a $9 scotch and coffee liqueur concoction, and pay your respects to the dearly departed.

Owls Club bar in Tucson
Owls Club bar in Tucson (image via: @owlsclubwest)

Top: Maynard’s Market & Kitchen (image courtesy of Visit Tucson)

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JCK Editor-in-Chief

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